I was six years old when the 1979 revolution happened. I was in the first grade when most of the homes of the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and his associates were opened to the public.
With the revolutionary atmosphere at its peak, this display of luxury was questioned by the supporters of the regime. Simplicity was widely favored then, a lifestyle to be followed by everyone in the country.
The founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, set himself up as an example and moved to the beautiful small town of Jamaran, in northern Tehran, where he settled down in a rental house belonging to a local Imam.
Flashy cars, expensive clothes and aristocratic extravagances such as having maids or housekeepers were all condemned. House workers and employees rose against their former bosses. Coming mostly from small villages and towns, they took over people’s property and wealth in the name of the revolution. Confiscated properties were sold cheap or given free to the revolutionary people.
Slowly during these 35 years, a new generation of enriched people and their associates became Iran’s new wealthy generation.
It is hard to find an old family in Iran that could easily maintain their households. The middle class has been shattered and society is divided between rich and poor.
The new wealthy—enriched by the revolution and their connections to important people in government, are now living in much more grandiose houses than those that were owned by the Shah.
The economic sanctions imposed as a response to Iran’s nuclear program have been hitting ordinary Iranians hard. Today’s world image of Iran is one of a broken country with very poor people. Yet government statements deny that ordinary Iranians are suffering and even point out, for example, that Iran tops the list of orders of luxury cars in the whole of the Middle East.
Using local currency, the rial, so undervalued against the US dollar, ordinary people would be paying three times the actual price of these cars to own one. Add the custom duties to the exchange rate and these cars become even more expensive.
One of the new wealthy is 35-year-old tycoon Babak Zanjani—yet how he acquired his riches is a mystery. A boy from a small town who sold animal skins for a living (according to an interview he gave to a local Iranian newspaper), Zanjani came to Tehran to complete his military service and was appointed as driver to the chairman of the Iranian Central Bank. With no education and little working experience he became Iran’s richest man in the space of a few years, thanks to his connections.
Today Zanjani is in prison charged with corruption and tax fraud. He was arrested because the government has changed and his supporters, perhaps, are no longer in government. But there are many like Babak Zanjani, with their Porsches, Maseratis and Rolls-Royces in Tehran and other big cities, and no one questions them or cares when others can’t even afford basic needs such as medical treatment.
On the 35th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, its ideals have gone. Today Iran is a broken country with high unemployment and generations scarred by inequality and injustice.
The West was demonized by Khomeini. But his grandchildren and the children of other clergy can afford the luxury of travelling abroad at whim. I am not sure if today there are any of those old houses left in Tehran to show schoolchildren about the excesses of the Shah’s corrupt era and tell them, “the Shah and his family stole the nation’s money to live a very comfortable life here.”
The king’s homes and possessions do not compare what some people associated with the ruling class own these days. Today ordinary Iranians pass the great houses and estates of the revolutionaries and their associates, point their fingers and say, “this is the true cause of the revolutions. It was bad for Shah, but it’s ended up good for them!”